Archaeology of Festivals

stonehenge stars

So what makes a modern British festival? People, music, food, drink, dance and socialising.  Folk are drawn to the event from outside the local areas, they travel with their own temporary homes and set up cheek by jowl with strangers. Festivals are about meeting with different social groups, ‘feasting’ on unusual foods and drinks, taking part in special activities, buying unsual items and hearing new sounds and ideas.

So how long have British festivals been held?  Mass gatherings started when the first farmers arrived – evidenced in the monuments and tombs that relied on teamwork for their construction.  Take Stonehenge for example, built a few thousand or so years later, were there festivals held there?  There must have been large teams involved in the construction of this monument, and we are in no doubt people gathered there at the times that the stones and the sun aligned.

Sun shining down Bryn Celli Ddu passage

Sun shining down Bryn Celli Ddu passage Solstice 2013

The problem is finding evidence, Stonehenge is bewilderingly clean, inhabited only by the dead (cremated human reamins) but with little evidence of the activiites of the living. Apart from the permanent structures (the stones) these prehistoric party people appear to have followed the modern festival phiolosopy of ‘Leave no Trace’ at least at the ‘main stage’.  Luckily for us however these participants left the equivalent of their tents and their rubbish behind at their ‘campsite’ and permanent settlement at Durrington Walls, siutated about 2 miles from Stonehenge. This rubbish tells us that thousands of people gathered seasonally here, probably to take part in activities associated with Stonehenge. From their food remains we know they feasted on pork and beef, that these gathering occurred mostly in mid-winter, as well as in mid-summer and that the animals (and their owners?) travelled from as far as Scotland.

stonehenge stars

Other than the food remains and associated pottery, this site does not provide the type of detail we need to reconstruct ‘festival’ acitivities, however ethnography and analogy suggests that in a world with no other forms of mass communication that festivals were the best way to exchange information.  These gathering would bind societies together and provide a forum for socialising, meeting new partners reinforcing allegances, exchanging gifts and telling stories, trading exotic goods, learning new skills and passing on traditions.   We cannot prove, but feel fairly certain, that in common with most of humankind they probably danced to music, drank alcohol (there is early evidence for brewing) and lost themselves in the moment.   The British festival has a long and noble tradition, even in a world with mass communication nothing beats a bit of face to face social interaction – go on follow in your ancestors footsteps, eat, drink and be merry.

Dr Jacqui Mulville Cardiff University

General Reading

Stonehenge by Mike Parker Pearson

Academic Papers

Hayden, B., & Villeneuve, S. (2011). A century of feasting studies. Annual Review of Anthropology40, 433-449.

Pollard, J. (2012). Living with sacred spaces: the henge monuments of Wessex. (free pdf)

Viner, S., Evans, J., Albarella, U., & Parker Pearson, M. (2010). Cattle mobility in prehistoric Britain: strontium isotope analysis of cattle teeth from Durrington Walls (Wiltshire, Britain). Journal of Archaeological Science37(11), 2812-2820.

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